Dungeness April 1976
When I began birding in 1974 I borrowed a copy of ’Seventy Years of Bird-watching’ by H G Alexander from the library. It became my birding template. He enthralled me with details of local patch watching, tales of the sudden excitement when rarities appear and above all the absorbing account of his many visits to a place called Dungeness that spanned seven decades. Now I’m here. I can look around me and actually visit the place where he found his Cream-coloured Courser in 1916 and where Jack Tart discovered a dead Bridled Tern during the 30’s. His Kentish Plovers and Stone Curlews may have gone but in my vivid imagination he is still here, wandering over the shingle, just out of view. The ghosts of previous birdwatchers (and their birds) haunt this shingle in a happy, benevolent way. Every gorse clump whispers of long-departed rare warblers, each fence post resonates with the spirit of the thousands of chats that have alighted upon it over the years. You can smell the history, feel the ornithological aura.
I have discovered a birding ‘underclass’ at Dungeness. They are all long-haired men who do not conform in any way, shape or form to the notion that birdwatchers are either vicars, nerds or women in tweed. This band of desperadoes swear, drink, take drugs, tell filthy jokes AND are bloody good birders. They look bohemian and have been to distant, exotic locations in the quest for birds. Dungeness is their patch. I really do want to be a part of them. Membership, I learn, has to be slowly earned. I watch them as they casually bird – more interested in a girl’s breasts than the Black Redstart in the moat. Just as likely to be discussing the latest Kevin Ayers album as to the difference between Icterine and Melodious Warblers. From a distance they could be a bike gang. Close up they still look like they could be a bike gang. Tony Soper they are not. They seems to be genuinely interested in what us youngsters have to say. I decide to adopt them as my role model even though I am nothing like them, but aspire to be so.